HIV activist William Brawner speaks out.
As a kid, when Brawner could've used a little positive reenforcement, there was no such inspiration.
On the second floor of the Allegheny Avenue warehouse--up the dusty, wooden steps and through a door marked HAVEN--teenage boys and girls watch SportsCenter on a 20-inch screen, lob basketballs at an arcade hoop and talk among themselves on a couch near the entrance.
As a sick kid himself, Brawner says he had minimal social support outside his family and he could only dream of a place like HAVEN, where he could be open about his situation.
"Let's say you're 14--where would you rather go?" he asks. "You want to be with your friends, hanging out, having a good time in an atmosphere that's not all about doctors and needles."
Today--almost three decades after the first acknowledged cases of HIV/AIDS and a decade since medications have changed the paradigm from saving lives to helping people live healthy--more than 16,000 people live with HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia, 79 percent of whom are black or Latino.
And here's where Brawner comes in: Thirty-four percent of the newly infected are under 29.
Most of the kids referred to HAVEN come from hospitals that rely partially on support-group attendance at places like Brawner's center for funding. Though hospitals are cautious recommending anyplace for kids, progress at HAVEN has been steady. In April the center had 15 kids; now it has twice as many.
While many organizations provide prevention and treatment for teens, HAVEN is the only center focusing on HIV-positive kids 13 to 24 in the city. Describing it as strictly recreational, though, would diminish what Brawner's trying to do. HAVEN also provides food and pays for public transportation. Kids can call Brawner's cell phone in emergencies.
But mainly it's a place they can go to feel comfortable talking about their situation. Brawner says some of the kids haven't even told their siblings they have HIV.
Though medicine has made HIV a manageable chronic disease, like diabetes or cystic fibrosis, treatment adherence is critical.
"If you're told to take a medicine twice a day, seven days a week, and you miss every Saturday, the medicine will stop working for you and you can never go back to those medicines," says Dr. Rutstein.
Brawner makes sure kids at HAVEN keep doctor's appointments and take their medication. Two of the teens have been designated "undetectable" since coming to the center, which means the virus is almost invisible in tests.
When Brawner was a student at Howard University his condition was invisible to the outside world. But the virus grew heavier, even-tually sapping his emotional--and moral--strength.
As a college student William Brawner walked to breakfast every morning. Near the cafeteria, on a ridge just across McMillan Reservoir, stood the hospital where he became infected.
In his freshman year Brawner met a guy named Langley McGhee, and the two became good friends. They spent their weekends partying hard, and prided themselves on the number of women they pursued.
Brawner hid his HIV status from McGhee and their other friends--and worse, from his sexual partners.
|Street fighter: William Brawner, HIV-positive for 27 years, has transformed a neighborhood warehouse into a refuge for HIV-positive youth. (photo by michael persico)|
"I never would've predicted he was HIV-positive," says McGhee, now a computer technician. "You'd think a person [in that situation] would be a little bit more reserved about sexual activity."
More than a few voices caution that in the decade-plus since effective antiretroviral meds have transformed HIV infection from a death sentence into a chronic but manageable infection, too many people have lost their fear of the virus.